This collection of articles was first published on the website of Sentience Politics.
We try and use our limited resources – skilled time and money – to help others in the most effective way possible. Non-human animals qualify as “others” too, given the strong arguments suggesting that animal suffering matters and that we should strive to reduce suffering regardless of the species of the individuals affected. Factory farms and slaughterhouses cause intense suffering to billions of sentient individuals and should therefore be a top priority for activists. In order to help improve their situation as quickly and as much as possible, we should identify and implement the most effective strategies. If we pursue suboptimal strategies, we might lose most of our potential impact, i.e. most of what we intend to achieve. Conversely, identifying particularly effective leverage points can multiply our impact many times over.
Our decisions affect thousands, perhaps millions and potentially even billions of animals. In the light of these stakes, it is vital that we select our strategies with rigour and care. We should think rationally about our approach to activism and avoid picking strategies based solely on intuition – which cognitive psychology has shown to be quite unreliable – or because they are commonly used. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should always be open to the possibility new information and arguments implying that we should change our focus. The effectiveness of different strategies should be expected to vary by a significant factor, maybe even by orders of magnitude. The expected impact of open-mindedness is enormous.
One of the most common strategies animal organisations employ is reducetarian, vegetarian or vegan outreach . Since human consumption of animal products necessitates the existence of factory farms and slaughterhouses, convincing people to change their diets can solve the problem. Average meat eaters in industrialized countries consume more than 25 land animals each year, i.e. more than 1000 land animals per life-time. Convincing a single person to change their diet (or failing to do so) thus affects a large number of individuals. Convincing just two individuals saves twice as many individuals as one’s own life-time consumption, and so on. Considering that we all have the power to encourage dozens or even hundreds of people to change their diets, the stakes are huge.
This suggests that vegan outreach might be a highly effective strategy. However, there are counter-considerations: Many people are reluctant to change their dietary habits (and behaviours in general), which generates biases and rationalisations that make moral attitude change harder. In general, we can facilitate persuasion by picking battlegrounds that are not immediately tied to individual behavioural change. (In other words: Food may be a very poor battleground choice.) Moreover, it’s plausible that effective animal advocacy should strive towards changing social norms and laws, which raises doubts about focusing on individual dietary change. A common reply is that vegan outreach is necessary to raise awareness for animal suffering and build an animal rights movement. Thus, convincing individuals to change their diets will lead to social change. However, there may be more targeted and effective ways to achieve social change. Since our resources – time and money – are limited, it is crucial that we try and identify leverage points that enable us to effect attitude, social and legal change maximally cost-effectively.
Ultimately, the animal rights movement must change speciesist laws, which recommends political approaches. Such approaches come with a number of advantages over ones that focus more on individual consumer choices: In “free market” contexts, landslide change requires persuading many more individuals than it does in political contexts. Persuading democratic majorities (or the few decision-makers of crucial political institutions) can cause new laws and thus behavioural change in everyone. Through structural change – i.e., the introduction of new nudges (prohibitions being the strictest form thereof) – political action can achieve more by persuading fewer people who may be easier to persuade , because interest in politics and political power correlate with education. Last but not least, many more people are inclined to politically support structural measures (e.g., the nudge of introducing vegan options in all public canteens) than are inclined to significantly change their consumer behaviour very quickly. The latter is personally costlier than the former, and there is a general gap between people’s ethical views and their everyday behaviour. It is crucial for the movement’s impact to enable everyone who’s ideologically on board to societally express their support of the cause, regardless of how personally lazy or weak-willed they are. Politics offers ways to achieve that. It can help us close the human gap between good intentions and personal laziness.
One could object that the probability of short-term political success is very low, and that the effort is wasted if our attempts are unsuccessful. However, this objection ignores the fact that legislative and judicial initiatives often constitute immensely effective platforms to spark societal debate and influence (future) decision-makers as well as society at large. It is crucial that we change underlying moral attitudes, not only people’s short-term behaviour – because the harmful effects of speciesism and lack of concern for suffering reach far beyond factory farming. Our subsequent articles on wild animal suffering and risk of vast future dystopias present reasons to think that a movement’s impact will be quite limited if it “just” abolishes factory farming without maximally affecting societal attitudes for the better. If we just abolish factory farming without changing the problematic moral attitudes that enabled it, then the problem of “high-tech causing vast amounts of suffering (with or without active malevolence)” is bound to reappear on other technological contexts.
As a political think-and-do tank, Sentience Politics aims to pioneer political action that can be supported by the entire animal movement. Our work includes the publication of well-researched political position papers on a wide range of animal-related issues: institutional promotion of plant-based foods, 3R (Refine, Reduce, Replace) for farm animals, basic rights for all primates, alternatives to animal testing, cultured meat, welfare biology research, and more. To be intellectually engaging and societally attractive, we must cover more than just the intrinsic top priorities, and the limitedness of political windows of opportunity to push a given issue recommends the same. By using a rational and scientific approach, we are building a strong base of academic and political supporters. Popular initiatives (leading to binding democratic votes) can also be effective if they trigger big societal debates and force (future) political decision-makers to consider an issue and take a stand.
Our political approach meshes well with the view that targeting societal elites is more important than targeting the broad public, and that creating new activists is (much) more important than creating mere adopters of the attitudes we are promoting. Both these points are expanded on in section 3.3 below.
Basic rights for primates
Trying to change laws or court rulings can be a promising approach for effecting ideological and social change. By achieving legal personhood and basic rights for the first non-human animals (e.g. primates), we can break through the speciesist legal wall that separates humans from nonhumans.
At first glance, working towards basic rights for primates may seem ineffective because only a very small number of sentient beings will be directly affected. However, this objection is short-sighted because it neglects the long-term consequences of an anti-speciesist breakthrough and the value of the academic and societal debate (and their associated movement building benefits) caused by such efforts, even if they ultimately fail.
Antispeciesist attitude change could be comparatively easy to achieve in the context of basic rights for primates: People feel much less pressured to change any everyday behaviour if they agree with the proposal, and the societal changes are minor; humans probably have an easier time feeling empathy for fellow primates; and primates tend to be more cognitively sophisticated than other species, which enables people with intelligence-focused moral views to agree, too (which consideration is important even if we ultimately favour suffering-focused sentientism). Therefore, promoting basic rights for primates is likely to be a highly effective way of challenging the notion that species membership is relevant for strong moral and legal protection (i.e., protection by rights).
Once basic rights are granted to the first non-human beings and automatic exclusion by species membership has collapsed, we’ll be able to extend rights to other species much more easily. As people get accustomed to or grow up with new laws, their attitudes are shaped in the direction indicated by the laws. This makes progressive extension of progressive laws highly probable.
The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has been implementing the “basic rights” approach in the US common law system, where the judicial route looks very promising. Sentience Politics is pursuing the legislative route in European civil law system.
Research on cultured meat (in-vitro meat, lab meat) constitutes another potential leverage point. Its production might slash conventional meat consumption as soon as large-scale production become economically feasible. Even if we judged the probability of such a scenario to be low (for whatever reason), the game-changing potential of cultured meat is a sufficient argument for allocating a decent amount of resources to advancing it.
The main advantage of this approach – technological fixes to global problems – is that it does not require people to change their everyday behaviours. Its main disadvantage consists in not tackling directly people’s moral attitudes. The indirect effects on them could be very significant nonetheless: The behavioural fact of meat eating is an obstacle to unbiased moral reasoning that cultured meat could greatly reduce. However, targeting the moral attitudes of (future) elites more directly should probably be expected to be more effective overall, especially because technological fixes to global problems cannot be developed and implemented without sufficiently many morally persuaded elites.
Producing policy papers and demanding state funding for cultured meat research as a political think-and-do tank offers a way to combine the above-mentioned goals. We also encourage careers in cultured meat entrepreneurship or direct research if individual comparative advantages recommend them. Given the uncertainty about what’s ultimately going to be the most impactful strategy, we consider it important that low hanging opportunities be taken in all potentially crucial areas. If cultured meat becomes more resource efficient, healthier and cheaper than “real” meat over the coming decades, it could present a unique opportunity to save trillions of animals, including in non-Western societies such as China, and to influence their moral values in turn.
Meta-strategies go “one level up” in order to try and multiply our impact: Instead of helping directly, they help our capacities to help first, for greater leverage. An example of a simple meta-strategy is effective fundraising for other organisations. Our fundraising project Raising for Effective Giving (REG) inspires successful poker players, video gamers, traders and other wealthy professionals to donate a significant percentage of their income to effective charities. For each dollar spent on the project, REG has fundraised ten dollars for effective human and animal charities, thus multiplying the impact of donations by a factor of 10 . REG has expended about $100,000 so far – money that could have been put towards helping sentient beings directly. Instead, we chose to help our capacities to help and to multiply our resources first: With our expenses we were able to fundraise more than $1,000,000, which was then forwarded to effective charities (usually for “matching challenges” in order to further multiply the money). REG’s strategy also spreads the idea of effective giving in general and helps build a movement of “effective donors”, which should be very valuable in the long term.
Similar considerations apply to the animal rights movement: Because a chronic lack of money often limits the acquisition of talent and organisational growth, finding ways to systematically raise (much) more money is strategically crucial. With more funding, pro-animal organisations could e.g. hire many more activists full-time and significantly increase their impact. Even organisations that are, for whatever specific reason, averse to “money” should recognise that societal change is much less likely without many dedicated activists/organisers being able to work on the cause full-time . This holds true even on the premise that politicising people in the context of their everyday lives and jobs is vital: This strategy, too, necessitates lots of full-time activists effectively sparking politicisation. All of these activists need a basic income to live on. Thus, systematically improving the funding situation of the animal rights movement is a promising meta-strategy. Section 3.1 deals with the question of how to implement it.
Meta-strategies are about helping our capacities to help – capacity building. Fundraising and movement building are one of two main sub-classes of meta-strategies. The other subclass is research: Learning more about what strategies are (in)effective when it comes to reducing the suffering of sentient beings. What are the conditions under which social movements have succeeded, and when have they failed, historically? How can we best persuade people of our cause, psychologically, and what demographics should we tackle with priority, sociologically? Which direct strategies are most effective in today’s world? Which meta-strategies? And how do they compare with direct ones? As a think-and-do tank, Sentience Politics allocates a significant fraction of its resources to research.
Getting rich: Directly or by spreading a donation norm
Money is power, and the power to fund a great number of activists and launch well-targeted outreach campaigns is necessary for a social movement to succeed. Getting rich and donating a large fraction of one’s income to effective NGOs is thus a highly promising career path: As a teacher (in Switzerland), doctor, lawyer, software engineer or trader one can earn more than $100,000 per year, and possibly more than $200,000. Entrepreneurship is riskier but can be much more lucrative still. Instead of taking up one NGO job that would otherwise (in many cases) be executed anyway, one can Earn to Give and fund several NGO jobs that would not have existed otherwise. Many high-earning jobs don’t plausibly involve ethical harm beyond what’s inevitable in current global society – human rights organisations being complicit in slave labour , for instance, in virtue of buying electronic devices. The strategy of getting rich directly (Earning to Give) can thus lead to a huge win-win.
A more meta strategy for getting rich is convincing many other people to Earn to Give, or convincing masses of people to adopt a new donation norm. The animal movement has invested lots of resources into systematically promoting an animal-friendly food norm model, commonly subdivided into different categories (most commonly reducetarianism, vegetarianism and veganism) to suit varying levels of commitment among their target audience. It seems highly irrational that the same has not been done (or systematically tried) for a donation norm, as it is a demonstrable fact that many people can save many more animals with their wallet than with their plate: Vegan consumption saves 10-25 animals per year. According to the estimates of Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE), a mere $100 donation can save up to 1000 animals. $100 corresponds to a typical membership fee or yearly donation to animal rights or veg organisations. Many people could easily afford giving twice or ten times as much. If such a donation norm could be established – can getting people to subtract $1000/year from their bank accounts be harder than getting them to significantly change their eating behaviour? –, it would be a game-changer for many organisations: A several-fold (!) multiplication of budgets and staffing capacities seems possible. In online materials, talks and career workshops, Sentience Politics consequently systematically argues that there’s reason to have strong moral qualms about not donating (as is the case with eating meat); to consider spreading a donation norm extremely morally important (as is spreading a good food norm); and to do everything we can to provide practical guidance to people adopting the donation norm, by spreading tipps and building a supportive community (as we do with the food norm). The community should include fundraising platforms and the possibility to take public >10% donation pledges, i.e. pledges to allocate >10% of one’s future financial resources to organisations that effectively reduce the suffering of sentient beings.
Improving the effectiveness of the movement
Improving the effectiveness of the movement is the marriage between the meta-strategies of research and movement building: Spreading strategic research results in the animal rights movement and beyond. It guides the allocation of a large share of Sentience Politics’ resources. The “effective altruism” movement has generated lots of strategic insights about effective world-improvement, and promoting them among animal rights activists should be a great contribution to their expected future impact. Improving the strategic sophistication of the animal movement could be even more important than scaling up its size: Increasing the size by a factor of 10 is hard, and boosting it by a factor of 100 is impossible (and unnecessary, given that strong animal rights ideas – currently shared by 1% of the population – would win legally well before having expanded to the whole population). By contrast, research suggests that improving the effectiveness of strategies by a factor of 10 or even 100 may be feasible, particularly because the animal movement has not taken an effectiveness focus historically.
Effective movement-building strategies: Which demographics to target?
The animal movement often focuses on reaching as many people as possible today and tries to maximise the number of food norm adopters very directly. This strategy neglects the fact that an effective activist or professional donor with an animal focus is likely to have much more long-run impact than somebody who merely changes her diet. The difference can be huge, easily 100 times: Consider a full-time activist working for 25 year and convincing just four new people to go vegan every year. Or a professional donor, funding several full-time activists during 25 years. (Or, indeed, a full-time activist convincing several people to become professional donors.)
This implies that we should focus on creating additional effective animal activists instead of merely convincing more people to go vegan. Sentience Politics uses a rational and science-based approach for this very reason: Rational arguments may reach fewer people overall than emotionally appealing messages and pictures, but those who are receptive to such an approach tend to be more strategically influential and it is more likely that they will themselves become effective animal activists. Researchers like Steven Pinker argue that targeting societal elites with rational arguments is much more important for effecting social change than targeting the masses with emotional appeals.
Sentience Politics will systematically explore effective movement building strategies. For example, we offer career workshops and advice to young academics and professionals in the animal movement. Career advice can potentially have large returns because many young people are open to ideas like Earning to Give or other effective careers but have never thought about them.
We should strive to identify the most effective strategies in order to use our limited resources optimally. Political action is promising for many reasons: It is potentially high-leverage, it can initiate big societal debates and the political process is an important platform for spreading ideas and for movement-building. In addition to dietary change, basic rights for primates and research on in-vitro meat are two examples of potentially very important leverage points for social change.
Meta-strategies might be even better than direct approaches and can potentially lead to a very powerful leverage effect. There are several promising and underexplored meta strategies that could be instrumentally very important in strengthening the movement. Even if it is unclear to what extent these strategies will work, the potentially game-changing impact and the neglectedness suggest that exploring meta strategies is very valuable.
Compared to vegan outreach, many of these strategies are more indirect and involve a longer causal chain, but this uncertainty might be outweighed by the potentially very high impact. Of course, this does not mean that we should stop doing vegan outreach. Rather, it means that we complement proven outreach efforts by exploring other promising strategies as well. The good news is that, if we successfully identify the most effective strategies, our work has the potential to sustainably alleviate the suffering of millions of sentient beings.